So where do I start with this outrageous character of Dada legend and lore? Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is pretty much the founder of Dada in New York during the 1913-20’s. (Dada came about as a reaction against the academy’s stuffy rules regulating, defining, organizing, and otherwise controlling an understanding/definition of art; the anti-art scene then escalated into anti-culutre movement in part as a search for meaning and consolation in the catastrophic aftermath of WWI.) Marcel DuChamp, her contemporary and friend, credits her as being the original dadaist stating that, “she is not a futurist, she is the future.”
It is right that DuChamp should be so admirable of The Baroness. She brought Dada to the fore front of culture in at the start of the new century in New York by pushing the boundaries of elite culture. Dada’s darling went to war with the bourgeois, attacking decency with her explicit dadaist poetry, constructed ready-mades that upset traditional art making practices, crafted dangerously anti-religous sculptures, and designed her own elaborate costumes from found and stolen items. The Baroness did not just cause a riot, she was a riot, making scene with her outlandish, ridiculous behavior everywhere she went. In short, the woman was a hot mess. Today we’d call her a ratchet, with the singular gift of provoking everyone around her into a hissy fit.
The Baroness was born July 12,1874 in Germany, she studied art in Dachau, near Munich before marrying her first husband in 1901, Berlin-based architect August Endell, at which time she became Else Endell. Ever one for a good scandal, she lived an avant-garde bohemian lifestyle, having an open relationship with her husband while working as an actress and vaudeville performer. She had numerous affairs with artists in Berlin, Munich and Italy, and in 1902 she became involved romantically with a friend of Endell’s, the minor poet and translator Felix Paul Greve (later the Canadian author Frederick Philip Grove), and all three went to Palermo in late January 1903. They then lead a faery nomadic lifestyle, traveling to various places, including Wollerau, Switzerland and Paris-Plage, France. She found work modeling for artists in Cincinnati, and made her way east via West Virginia and Philadelphia.
Elsa became a baroness by marrying Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven in 1913 and maintained that title the rest of her life, despite numerous affairs. She exploited her aristocratic status as a weapon to assault bourgeois taste. One of my favorite Baroness antics was her single-handed effort to present futuristic fashion to the bohemians of Greenwich Village, by scandalizing her neighbors parading about semi-nude along 14th Street, barely covered with feathers. It is evident that her preferred method for undermining the avant-garde was to always be as naked as she could get, even wearing nothing but tea-balls on her breasts while reciting poetry on street corners.
Until recently, The Baroness was best known for her provocative poetry, which was finally published in a 2011 posthumous compilation of her writings Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Irene Gammel. (The New York Times praised the book as one of the notable art books of 2011.) She liked to experiment with punctuation and grammar to challenge the structure of langue. She made good use of dashes to set unique tempos and almost actual motion within her sentences, and created portmanteau compositions that made a mockery of coherency with non-sensical phrases. As the poem “Loss” states: “She is mad— / I am lost— / Utter.” (Loss, 234)
When reading her poems you often have to pause to rethink her meaning. I find I have to recompose the poems, decide which statements are spoken by which voice/persona, in what order lines are meant to be read, and in what combination with the lines surrounding it. Take a second look at the tercet cited above—here the two-syllable word line “Utter” may be a command “to utter” and if so who is to speak? Is the command directed to her, us, or is it the owl in the poem? Or is “utter” not a verb at all but a displaced adjective, one which should be read as if it precedes the word “lost” in the penultimate line? And if so does The Baroness ask the reader if this refers to utter loss? And who utterly lost and what was it? Or is the speaker utterly lost? Or is she talking about a random cow’s utters?! By being evasive with layers of meaning, The Baroness wrote very polarizing poetry, causing some people to either find their meanings very personal to each reader or very isolating and shallow. Ezra Pound was not always her biggest fan, but what does he know?
Another one of her stylistic elements is her laudable exploration of the thin line—made up of one to three syllables and streaking down the pages like a stripe, an arrow’s shadowtrail. At times these tiny lines create a clipped, staccato pacing, at others they embody speed and slippage; are aquatic in their rush. This is especially true in poems where sound seems beyond control, tumbling and falling
And of course she is never shy about discussing sex. A lot of her portmanteaus are highly explicit, such as “Kissambushed” and “Phalluspistol.” The Little Review put her on the map in 1918 by publishing 20 of her poems and more than a dozen of her essays and notes. The magazine thereupon gave the baroness a forum for the next four years, establishing her among Dada luminaries. One of the Baroness’ poems, reproduced by Gammel, reads:
No spinsterlollypop for me!
Yes! We have no bananas
I got lusting palate
I always eat them…
There’s the vibrator
Coy flappertoy! …
A dozen cocktails, please!
Yup. Those are blatant phallic references. By today’s standards perhaps these aren’t so shocking, but in the early 1900s worn were still admired for their gentle and modest qualities. And even men could get into trouble for being so open about sex acts.
The Baroness also worked with found object making assemblage sculptures and collage paintings while in New York. Her habit of collecting rubbish and refuse to create sculptures of anti-art greatly offended art critics. But her radical behavior impressed and inspired her contemporaries. She was feared and admired by the likes of Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Djuna Barnes who all, like Ezra Pound, found themselves discussing her work in verse whether they liked it or not. And the very first movie made by Duchamp and Man Ray was about Elsa, titled The Baroness Shaves her Pubic Hair. The film cements her status Queen of Dada, but sadly only a handful of film stills have been salvaged by history. She is featured in many other Dada artists works, adding further testament to the depth of her influence and the admiration held to her by contemporaries.
Being friends with DuChamp, The Baroness was likely also involved in the conception of the famous ready-made, Fountain (1917). As Irene Gammel has documented, the choice of a urinal as art work is more in line with Freytag-Loringhoven’s scatological aesthetics than with Duchamp’s. Moreover, Duchamp indicates in a letter to his sister written in 1917 that a female friend of his had sent him the urinal for submission at the Independents Exhibition. Rediscovered by the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1996, her Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (no longer extant) is an example of her ready-made pieces. She also contributed to New York Dada by collaborating with Morton Schamberg on the 1917 assemblage sculpture God, which is constructed of plumbing materials.
Unfortunately her death was not a glamorous or scandalous as her lifestyle. Finding herself finically insecure, in 1923, The Baroness went back to Berlin, expecting better opportunities to make money. Instead she came home to an economically devastated post-World War I Germany. Regardless of her difficulties in Weimar Germany, she remained there, penniless and on the verge of insanity. Though she still had several friends in the American expatriate community, in particular Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, and Peggy Guggenheim, who provided emotional and financial support, she continued to deteriorate over the next few months. She died on December, 14 1927 of gas suffocation after the gas was left on in her flat. She may have forgotten to turn the gas off, or someone else may have turned it on; the circumstances were never clear. She is buried in Paris, France at Père Lachaise Cemetery.
So there you have it. The Baroness is the original socially unacceptable bad girl. Her life reminds us that Miley Cyrus only wishes she could be as naughty as The Baroness, and Madonna and Lady gaga have nothing on her scanty outfits. I leave you with what is my favorite poem, for now, and I’ll also leave a few of images of her art and costumes. I highly recommend you read the Gammel book and check out this link to her digital library hosted by the University of Maryland digital library: http://www.lib.umd.edu/dcr/collections/EvFL-class/index.html
I do agree
Madam—I firmly stand that ground
Coitus is paramount
Nay—Mr. Twitch do me allow
To cool define: when you know how!
As poetry—coitus urges
Driven courses rhythmic surges
Fancy’s wing composed complex
Sunsirens’ crimsoncruising yell
Saucerorbs agog enorm
I don’t perform. (43)